A thera’s ancient remarks on vipassanā

In addition to an earlier post on Ven. Malunkyaputta‘s most interesting analysis of vipassanā meditation (right in front of the Buddha) which clarified what “bare awareness” actually boils down to in terms of meditation practice there is another beautiful personal account from one of the monks in the early Sangha: Venerable Tālaputa (who later became an arahant).[1]

The story of his life and decision to become a monk is quite interesting in itself, but looking at his legacy in the Theragatha from a meditation relevant point of view, we stumble over the following four verses:

1117.Bhāvehi jhānāni ca indriyāni ca, balāni bojjhaṅgasamādhibhāvanā;
Tisso ca vijjā phusa buddhasāsane’, itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.
1118.Bhāvehi maggaṃ amatassa pattiyā, niyyānikaṃ sabbadukhakkhayogadhaṃ;
Aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ sabbakilesasodhanaṃ’, itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.
1119.Dukkhanti khandhe paṭipassa yoniso, yato ca dukkhaṃ samudeti taṃ jaha;
Idh’eva dukkhassa karohi antaṃ’, itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.
1120.Aniccaṃ dukkhanti vipassa yoniso, suññaṃ anattāti aghaṃ vadhanti ca;
Manovicāre uparundha cetaso’, itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.

Again, I would like to invite you to a very literal translation – obviously – from an insight meditation point of view [2].

The first two verses in this set provide an introduction: They tell the story of the path to Nirvana in a rough outline, showing what needs to be done in a general manner:

1117. Bhāvehi jhānāni ca indriyāni ca, balāni bojjhaṅgasamādhibhāvanā;
Tisso ca vijjā phusa buddhasāsane’, itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.
1118. Bhāvehi maggaṃ amatassa pattiyā, niyyānikaṃ sabbadukhakkhayogadhaṃ;
Aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ sabbakilesasodhanaṃ’, itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.1117. Grow in concentrations, the faculties and powers,
develop wisdom-factors by meditation deep
and then with Triple Knowledge touch the Buddha-sasana.’
So indeed my mind you used to urge me on.1118. Grow in the Eightfold Way for gaining the Undying
leading to Release and cleansing of all stains;
Plunge to the utter destruction of all Ill!’
So indeed my mind you used to urge me on

So far so good. I have quoted Ven. Khantipalo’s translation, as these two verses are not the one we want to focus on in detail, but they were good to start with, as they provide the context of what is coming next. Now that Talaputa summarized the Buddhist path, by quoting a couple of landmarks of progress towards Nibbana, he goes right into the heart of the matter, describing an (the) essential process of (meditation) practice.

Have a close look at the following two verses which show “how it is done” – focusing on the crucial part of the practice:

1119a. “Dukkhan” ti khandhe paṭipassa yoniso, (b) yato ca dukkhaṃ samudeti taṃ jaha;
(c) Idheva dukkhassa karohi antaṃ’, (d) itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.
1120a. Aniccaṃ dukkhanti vipassa yoniso, (b) suññaṃ anattāti aghaṃ vadhanti ca;

(c) Manovicāre uparundha cetaso’, (d) itissu maṃ citta pure niyuñjasi.

‘See the heaps properly so: “suffering”,
And from where suffering arises, (that) leave.
Here itself make and end to suffering’;
Thus did you, my mind, motivate me.

‘Properly see clearly so: “impermanent, suffering”
And so: “empty, self-less”, so: “misery, destruction”.
Stop the mind’s mental wanderings’,
Thus did you, my mind, motivate me.

Below the analysis of each part of the verses in detail:

  • Line 1119a: “dukkham” iti (because of sandhi: dukkhan’ti) – dukkha here as “suffering”, more precisely though “pain/unhappiness”.  Again [3] we have an example of direct speech, which was used in Pali to denote the spoken word or thoughts. Literally, we can take this as a “naming”, “tagging”, “labelling”, “description” exercise. This is something which Talaputta says his mind told him to do. In (b) he will explain (paraphrase!) that “noting” exercise in even more detail.
  • Line 1119a: khandhe – (acc.) the groups or aggregates (of grasping) which are form (object); feeling, perception, mental activities and consciousness (subject), ergo: anything we possibly can break our experience down to in each moment of being.
  • Line 1119a: paṭipassa yoniso – now this is really cool 🙂 paṭipassa is first of all an imperative – Tālaputa is reminding himself here what he wanted to do. The verb paṭipassati does not occur anywere in the suttas [4] – it is a very creative (poetic?) coinage of an activity which was taught by the Buddha and is now known as insight meditaiton. Of course the Buddha encourages the monks to see (passati) the five groups of graspings – in many suttas – usually using the words passati/vipassati and jānāti or dakkhati). But paṭipassati captures the connotations of “against“, or “renewed” (paṭi– a prefix) [5] -seeing (-passati). How close a description is that of what we do in vipassanā, when trying to note every possible detail – which is, when backed by strong concentration, in most cases an item of the five groups of grasping in its elementary form (before falling for the “product”, i.e. proliferation, papañca)! Trying to just see it, almost in “opposition” – so as not to get too close to the object and sink into it.

And now watch this:

  • Line 1119b: Yato dukkhaṃ samudeti – From where/When (yato) suffering (or pain, dukkha) arises. Now of course that suffering was just identified as … anything!, i.e. the five groups of grasping, capturing any aspect of our experience. sam+ud+eti means literally “together (sam-) up (ud-) goes (eti)” – a perfect description of “arising” – especially in meditation, that is exactly the feeling (!) you have when observing (any) object manifesting in your consciousness, i.e when you become aware of something. Now, what did the paṭipassati description above entail? Yes, the noting (opposition-seeing, patipassati) will us make let go of that very object without falling for it or going into details, therefore Tālaputa concludes:
  • Line 1119b: taṃ jaha – that (the suffering/pain in form of any of the five groups of grasping which just manifested itself) reject, throw away, renounce. Again, a very pictoresque description of the actual vipassana action which anyone who ever did vipassana does not have a hard time relating to.
  • Line 1120a: Now in the next verse Ven. Tālaputa gives us another couple of labels. The first few remind us of the three characteristics the Buddha describes the five groups with: anicca, dukkha, anatta. But it does not stop there. The other two seem random – (do they show that the label itself is less important than its application? Just used as a trick for the mind to direct the proper attention to the “fact” of arising but in itself just being a “name” and therefore nothing more than a peg to drive out another peg?) : Aniccaṃ dukkhanti vipassa yoniso, suññaṃ anattāti aghaṃ vadhanti ca. The commentary thinks so and gives the full list of similar qualifiers which the Buddha mentions a couple of times in the Salayatanasamyutta. You may also note how “vipassa” is used here interchangeably with patipassa, discussed above.

Then, finally, Ven. Tālaputa even gives us a clue as to what expect or look for when we apply a noting procedure of the khandhas. Very fascinating!:

  • Line 1120c:  Manovicāre uparundha cetaso –  Stop (upa+rundhati, cf. “Germ. auf (upa) + halten (~rudh) a very similar construction & meaning) the mental-movements (acc. pl., i.e. thoughts/proliferation – def. meant to imply vitakka and dhammas here, as he takes the word mano which is usually used as the basis for mental objects) of all sorts. [6]


In a vipassanā meditation one identifies whatever arises as an object of the five groups of grasping labeling/noting it as “dukkhaṃ” or (pain(ful), unhappiness) and rejecting it, or throwing it away by looking against it (paṭipassati) – looking/observing in such a way as not to get into any relation towards it, but staying “in opposition” for the purpose of stopping the mental proliferation, or, to say the same thing in the words of the Satipatthana Sutta: “ ‘atthi dhammo’ti vā pan’assa sati paccupatthitā hoti, yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭissatimattāya…” (‘The bare awareness refrain‘)

It seems to me that a very literal understanding of passages like these make them fit perfectly in the methodology as established by contemporary insight meditation practices (that is not to say there is room for improvement in either our understanding how and why they work as they do or even how to best apply them, but a close resemblence of what is presented in these 2500 year old verses as insight meditation compared to our (Nyanarama/Mahasi etc.) current noting styles in insight meditation seems more than obvious. [7]


[1] For more information on the life of Ven. Tālaputta Thera, see BPS, Wheel 243.  link

[2] Classical languages are very dense with meaning, this seems to be crucial when it comes to descriptions of meditation practice in the Pali texts. On the one hand there is technical terminology which seems to have been favored by the early Sangha and a certain technical language developed pretty quickly – after all the ideas and features of meditation had to be named to allow communication. On the other hand a certain freedom of describing the methods is visible but it seems you almost have to know what to look for in order to see it. Obviously, the danger is trying to read the text through our own hermeneutic glasses. Two approaches can help: Studying the context of a word/phrase/passage and ones own meditation practice.

[3] Cf many of the other notes/remarks on this “iti” topic on this blog, for instance: http://theravadin.wordpress.com/2008/03/28/iti-and-sallakkheti/ . You can add the passage under observation in this post to the long list of similar setups.

[4] Well, maybe except for this passage (but the reading is unclear and could just be a typo) ‘‘Seyyathāpi, gahapati, puriso supinakaṃ passeyya ārāmarāmaṇeyyakaṃ vanarāmaṇeyyakaṃ bhūmirāmaṇeyyakaṃ pokkharaṇirāmaṇeyyakaṃ. So paṭibuddho na kiñci paṭipasseyya [passeyya (sī. syā. kaṃ. pī.)]. Evameva kho, gahapati, ariyasāvako iti paṭisañcikkhati – ‘supinakūpamā kāmā vuttā bhagavatā bahudukkhā bahupāyāsā, ādīnavo ettha bhiyyo’ti…pe… tamevūpekkhaṃ bhāveti. – paṭipassa here could the be translated as “to see again”.

However, there is one other definite mentioning of paṭipassati in the 5th century book “Abhidhammāvatāro”, in v. 1011. Obviously someone else noted this Theragatha verse for its vipassanā content before 🙂 [link]. Many of you might not know the “Abhidhammavatara”. Here a quick quote from the Malalasekara’s dictionary of Pali proper names [link]: …”An Abhidhamma treatise by Buddhadatta of Uragapura. The book was written in India in the Cola country. It is an introduction to the study of the Abhidhamma, and there is much similarity between it and the Visuddhi Magga, though Buddhadatta’s diction is less involved and ambiguous than that of Buddhaghosa; his vocabulary is extraordinarily rich and his style more graphic….Buddhadatta Thera. He lived in Uragapura in South India and wrote his works in the monastery of Bhūtamangalagāma in the Cola country, his patron being Accutavikkama.He studied, however, at the Mahāvihāra in Anurādhapura. Tradition says (e.g., SadS., p.55) that he met Buddhaghosa.Buddhadatta’s works include the Vinaya-Vinicchaya, the Uttara-Vinicchaya, the Abhidhammāvatāra and the Rūpārūpa-Vibhāga. The Madhuratthavilāsinī and the Jinālānkāra are also sometimes ascribed to him.” For the history friends amongst you, this BPS wheel has interesting information on the topic of ancient South-Indian Theravada: BPS, Wheel 124 [link]. This one is interesting as well: [link]

[5] Paṭi (indecl.) [Ved, prati, to Idg. *preti as in Lat. pretium (fr. *pretios)” price” (cp. precious), i. e. equiva- lent; Gr. pre/s (aeol.), proti/, pro/s against] directional prefix in well defined meaning of “back (to), against, towards, in opposition to, opposite.” See more at the PED entry for paṭi . If you happen to know some German: If “vipassati” equals “klarsehen” or even more lit. “ent/auseinander-sehen” then “patipassati” would lit. be “(da-)gegensehen”.

[6] Uparundhati [upa + rudh] to break up, hinder, stop, keep in check M i.243; J i.358; Th 1, 143, 1117; Sn 118, 916 (pot. uparundhe, but uparuddhe Nd1 346 = uparuddheyya etc.); Miln 151, 245,

The Suttanipata has a parallel to Talaputta, of course, in one of its most famous suttas:

755. Yaṃ kiñci dukkhaṃ sambhoti, sabbaṃ iñjitapaccayā; Iñjitānaṃ nirodhena, natthi dukkhassa sambhavo.

756. Etamādīnavaṃ ñatvā, dukkhaṃ iñjitapaccayā; Tasmā hi ejaṃ vossajja, saṅkhāre uparundhiya; Anejo anupādāno, sato bhikkhu paribbaje’’ti.

Here is an example: Thag, 525 Yadā vitakke uparundhiyattano

Manovicare < Manopavicare: ‘‘‘Aṭṭhārasa manopavicārā veditabbā’ti – iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñcetaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? ‘Cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā somanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, domanassaṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, upekkhāṭṭhānīyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati. Sotena saddaṃ sutvā…pe… MN Salayatanavibhangasutta

[7] If you want to see how these two verses look in a (way) less literal translation, have a look over at Ven. Khantipalo’s rendering, v. 26/27 [link]. You may actually be shocked how a small change can completely obscur – or bring to light – the very direct meditation description as examplified in these (semantically) dense and (meditation-) technically enriched two verses.

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  1. foziber

    Means this, if one can observe with deep concentration (focused mind) what arrives at the mind, what touches the body, what comes in or goes out (relative to senses – words -), as if all this was (is) out of our range – without one feel attachment -, this is Vipassana, this is meditation?
    Hmmm Your texts are very, very thoughtfull, full of meaning with simplicity.

  2. theravadin

    Dear foziber,
    Thanks for your comment. Talaputa’s and Malunkyaputta’s description of vipassana do indeed give us a lot of information on the practice. I think your question is a crucial one. A form of labeling like it is definitely mentioned here and in similar passages seems to have been common. Whether that was just meant to get things started or implied that concentration alone is not enough to “break the spell” of nama-rupa, I don’t know. This is also the core question of the jhana/vipassana debate. A Mahasi instructor would emphasize the importance of noting, acknowledging, that in the “higher stages” of noting, the awareness and letting go happens so fast, there seems to be no trace of labeling left – but to get there and not get sidetracked, he would definitely emphasize some sort of labeling process.
    On the other hand, we can clearly see that this works only with deep concentration, as the level of observation reached has to be such that it can break in and stop the proliferation of the mind at the earliest possible stage (at the very moment of sense contact). Is it possible to not get trapped if one does not even know what one is looking at? That would be the potential problem for someone who comes solely from the jhana side.
    There is definitely more evidence and explanations out there in the suttas and this will definitely not be the last post on this topic. Thanks again and lots of metta,
    a theravadin

  3. foziber

    I deeply thank you for your explanation. Yes, this topic will proceed as also in each ones life; anyway, I am copying-pasting this text of yours for to print and be able to study them.
    With Metta

  4. Fascinating ! Like foziber, I will have to read it over again to be sure to understand more — since I am not a textual scholar of any sort, nor know any Pali. So it is a good example of how deep one can go and how to unite wisdom.

    This morning, I ran into a new presentation style and it looks interesting. I showed my son and he may do his next book report this way. I can imagine this same info in that style being incredibly educational — it uses pictures and words. It says WordPress can handle it — though it may be just .org and not .com.

    Anyway, though you might want to take a peak: Prezi

    PS – no, I am not connected to the company or anything, though I must admit this almost sounds like ad spam. Hopefully my first paragraph dispels that doubt.

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